7 Free (Or Nearly Free) Things To Do In Hong Kong

free things to do in hong kong

By many measures, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But for every five-star hotel, luxury boutique and gourmet restaurant, there’s a budget room, quaint flea market and cheap dimsum stand waiting in the wings. In fact, apart from high accommodation costs, Hong Kong is a great destination for budget travelers, with its cheap public transport, vibrant street food scene and plentiful sights and attractions. Even if you’re low on cash, there is never a shortage of things to do. Here are seven of the best free (or nearly free) ways to experience Hong Kong on the cheap.

Take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour.

Some call it a commute; others call it a bargain way to cross one of the world’s most scenic harbors. The Star Ferry has been shuttling people across Victoria Harbour for more than a century, with its most popular route connecting Central Terminal on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. The view from either side is breathtaking.

Fares run between HK$2 (US$0.25) and HK$3.40 ($0.44), depending on what day you’re traveling and whether you’re sitting on the upper or lower deck. Drink medicinal tea with healing properties.

Locals line up around the block for a cup of the famed ya sai mei at Good Spring Company Limited, one of Hong Kong’s oldest herbal pharmacies. The bitter tea is said to have immunity-boosting powers, and Good Spring’s formulation is a result of years of experimentation by the pharmacy’s original proprietor, whose grandson now runs the shop. A cup of the cure-all will cost you HK$7 (US$0.90).

8 Cochrane Street, Central

Ride the world’s longest covered escalator.

The Central Mid-Levels escalator system is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, extending 800 meters and connecting the hilltop districts of Hong Kong with the rest of the city. The system, made up of 20 escalators and three moving walkways, acts as free public transportation for Hong Kong’s working classes. Tourists can hop on the escalator at any time, but be advised of its schedule: service runs downhill from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight.

Starts at Cochrane Street and Queen’s Road Central and ends at Shelley Street and Conduit Road, with multiple stops in between.

Take a tour of Hong Kong history.

Learn about Hong Kong’s fascinating past through a magnificently curated exhibition called “The Hong Kong Story” at the Hong Kong Museum of History. For just HK$10 ($1.30) you can journey from prehistoric times, to the Opium Wars, to 1960s pop culture, straight through to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. It’s the perfect indoor respite from Hong Kong’s suffocating heat.

100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.

Tim Ho Wan might be the only place on earth where you can eat a Michelin-starred meal for under US$10. Chef Mak Pui Gor, formerly of the Four Seasons, opened this non-descript dim sum joint on a back street of the Mong Kok district to bring high quality dim sum to the masses. The waits are legendary, lasting two, sometimes three hours. But if you don’t mind getting squeezed into a table with a family of five, try venturing there solo between the off-peak hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. I did and managed to get in immediately.

2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Hit up happy hour in SoHo.

Short for “South of Hollywood Road,” this up-and-coming neighborhood has a more quaint, intimate feel than other parts of Central Hong Kong. But don’t be misled – SoHo comes alive in the evenings, when its trendy bars and restaurants fill with young professionals taking advantage of Western-style happy hour specials. The deals usually kick off at 5 p.m.

The best way to arrive in SoHo is via the Central Mid-Levels Escalator; get off at Staunton Road.

Watch the world’s largest sound and light show.

Hong Kong’s “Symphony of Lights” isn’t just one of the best tickets in town; it’s also free! The nightly spectacle, run by the Hong Kong Tourism Commission, features sound, lights and lasers from 40 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Stake out a spot on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade for the best view, and toast to the fact that the best travel experiences can still (sometimes) be free.

The “Symphony of Lights” runs nightly at 8 p.m.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Photo of the Day – Hong Kong Junk

I don’t know that any city in the world can match the sheer “wow” factor of Hong Kong’s harbor. The city’s massive skyscrapers sit precariously perched on the lips of mountainous islands, always looking as if they’re about to fall into the sea. There’s probably no better way to take in the incredible view of this marvelous city than from the confines of a boat, particularly aboard a line like the Star Ferry. Flickr user wesleyrosenblum provides us with a fine example what the view from a Hong Kong boat ride might look like. In front of you is ancient Chinese Junk, its bright red mast floating in the breeze. Behind, Hong Kong Island aglow at twilight, a shimmering sea below and a sky of dusty orange and soft blue above. Perfect.

Taken any great travel photos of your own? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Top 10 Hong Kong experiences

Hong Kong is all about balance. Nature and steel. Silt and sparkle. Yin and Yang. This masterpiece of divergences is a Feng shui city bereft of boring angles or a predictable head turn. Spicy aromas billow from a flaming street wok. An animated hawker peddles jade from a humble stoop, his wispy beard blowing in a gust from a passing double-decker. In a corner office sixty floors up, a suited banker creates eastern wealth like a modern day alchemist. Each plays a part in defining the complexities of character forged in this balancing act of humanity. Vertically, Hong Kong is man’s answer to the California redwoods – thousands of spires erupting out of the earth like a civilization on steroids. If ever mankind had something to prove, they proved it here on the banks of the South China Sea.

After the Opium Wars in the 19th century, Hong Kong became a British colony. This colonial conquest fostered Hong Kong’s character in amazing ways. Compromises were made, the city was built, and the unlikely union created a hybrid society where east met west. The Brits and the Chinese built towards the sun and created a hulking civilization. The end result is Hong Kong – a city lavished in sublime food and breathtaking vistas. It is near impossible to yawn with boredom in this extraordinary city, and these ten experiences are a great foundation to any stay in Hong Kong.


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Ascend to the Peak
Victoria Peak is the highest point on Hong Kong Island, and the panoramic view out over the steel and glass jungle is awe-inspiring. To reach the peak, follow the signs from Hong Kong central and board the peak tram which shuttles you up to the peak at an unbelievably steep angle. The Peak boasts a multilevel shopping mall, great restaurants, and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. For food options, a disappointing Bubba Gump looms in a display of stale consumerism. Luckily, there is also a Mak’s Noodle, which serves up piping hot bowls of scrumptious wonton soup endorsed by Mr. Bourdain himself.

The Peak is a huge tourist draw. It is as mainstream as it gets and for good reason. The view is undeniably epic. Looking out across the harbor is to understand the scale of humanity.

top 10 Hong Kong Explore Tai O
The dichotomy of Hong Kong is a characteristic that is perhaps its most endearing. People assume it is only towering skyscrapers and glowing neon signs, but in actuality, Hong Kong is 40% parkland. For the yin of every bustling Kowloon intersection, Hong Kong has a peaceful yang nestled away on one of its many islands.

Tai O is a rural Chinese fishing village on the western side of Lantau Island. Lantau Island can be reached by boat or subway in a little over thirty minutes from Hong Kong Central, and Tai O can be reached by bus or taxi from the Tung Chung MTR stop on the island. Speeding from the hustle of Central to this old school fishing village frames the breadth of Hong Kong’s character. Tai O is a great place for eating fresh seafood, exploring, and even searching for elusive pink dolphins that appear occasionally just off shore. The stilt houses and country charms are a welcome respite from the urbanity of Hong Kong’s jungle of towers.

Wander Hong Kong Park
In the shadows of the steel and glass monstrosities that blanket Hong Kong Island is a very serene park. Hong Kong Park was built in 1991 at a cost of almost 400 million U.S. dollars. It was worth every penny. Boasting a surprisingly good (and free) aviary, a foot massage path, an Olympic square, several sporting areas, an artificial lake with a waterfall, and many other cool features, the park is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Located near the Central MTR station as well as the Peak tram station, it is very accessible and easy to find.

Dim Sum and Yum Cha
While similar in portion size and functionality to Spanish tapas, comparing dim sum to any other culinary tradition is an affront to its ancient legacy and the centuries of culture inherent in each bite. Dim sum literally means “to touch the heart.” Originating in Cantonese China, the meal was originally intended as a social snack with friends or family. As the years passed, dim sum evolved into a full blown meal to be consumed in the morning or early afternoon. Some dim sum staples include shrimp dumplings, phoenix talons, congee, and the ubiquitous barbecue pork buns.

Yum cha is a tradition with roots reaching back into the Silk Road days. Traders would stop by tea-houses for a snack and some hot tea. Translating to “drink tea,” yum cha is a term that is largely interchangeable with dim sum. Today, yum cha is the experience of drinking tea and gorging on a dim sum meal. A fantastic place to have tasty dim sum is the Michelin starred Tim Ho Wan. This restaurant may be the best place in the world to eat dim sum and is surprisingly cheap.

Shop the street markets – Ladies Market and Temple St. night market
Hong Kong is a perfect city for shoppers. One can purchase a real Vacheron Constantin watch in the Peninsula arcade for $18,000, or buy the knockoff version in one of the street markets for under a hundred dollars. Fake iPhones with lackluster functionality clutter high tables in display cases of high techno-comedy. Their smartphone brothers and sisters belittled by the mere association. If you crave Christian Louboutin shoes, then those are here too. You can buy the red soled pumps for roughly $50 if you bargain right. Of course, they are “same same but different,” which is to say they are fake. For the real thing, walk a few blocks south from the Ladies Market to Harbor City. A Louboutin boutique opened just last year – the second in Hong Kong. Expect to pay twenty times more for authenticity.

The Ladies Market is full of fake items, from Bapes to Rolexes. Selling both male and female clothing and jewelery, the market spreads out over several Mongkok blocks and is open every night. The negotiators are real professionals, so bring your “A” game and be prepared to walk away a few times to get your price. Exit the Mongkok MTR to access the Ladies Market on Tung Choi St.

The Temple Street night market is slightly less cramped than the Ladies Market and is located near the Jordan and Ya Ma Tei MTR stops. It has similar offerings to the Ladies Market, except with a wider range of strange offerings. There are also a multitude of great places to eat, and the local color is phenomenal. Hong Kong men lounge around shirtless drinking and playing cards at tables along the street.


Ride the Star Ferry
One of the greatest commutes is the world is a simple boat ride across Hong Kong harbor. The Star Ferry transports over twenty-six million passengers per year and costs about a quarter (2 HKD) for the cheapest route between Central on Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon peninsula. It has been in operation since the 19th century, and provides sublime views of both sides of the harbor. Traveling at night from Kowloon is especially colorful.

Fortune telling at Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin
Otherwise known as Wong Tai Sin Temple, the temple is dedicated to the Great Immortal Wong – an ancient Taoist who could turn stones into sheep. The temple architecture is traditional Chinese with lots of red, golden roofs, and various dragons. It is a very popular place to pray and is especially busy during the Chinese new year. It is located in Kowloon by the Wang Tai Sin MTR station.

Kau Cim is a spiritual fortune telling exercise and is extremely popular at Wong Tai Sin Temple. The process involves shaking a bamboo cylinder filled with fortune sticks until one falls out. The stick that falls out is exchanged for a corresponding fortune provided by an oracle. The temple is open from 7:00am to 5:30pm daily, and overnight on the Chinese New Year.

Ride the Ngong Ping 360 to Big Buddha
On Lantau Island, small cable cars slowly ascend to the foggy heights of Ngong Ping village and the Big Buddha. The village is largely a tourist concoction, though the nearby Po Lin Monastery has lurked in these hills for over 100 years. The Tian Tan Buddha is a massive structure – the second largest seated bronze Buddha in the world. Supposedly, it can even be seen from Macau on a clear day. Ironically, in the photo above, the Buddha can hardly be seen from just twenty feet away.

The fastest way to reach the Ngong Ping 360 is by MTR to the Tung Chung stop near the airport. From there, follow the signs to the Ngong Ping cable car station. The Ngong Ping 360 costs 115 Hong Kong dollars for a return trip, roughly $15.

Dive in to Hong Kong’s natural side
Hong Kong is almost half parkland, so there is much to do for outdoor lovers. There are hiking trails, nature parks, fishing, beaches, and even scuba diving. For hiking, Lantau hiking trail is a very popular 70km trek around luscious Lantau Island. Similar treks exist between villages on nearby Lamma Island as well. On Hong Kong island, the Dragon’s back is considered one of the top Urban treks in the world, snaking through the green backside of the densely populated island. The ramble ends near Shek O beach.

In northwestern Kowloon, the Hong Kong Wetlands park is home to several wild flora and fauna, from rare Black-faced Spoonbills to a famous croc known as Piu Piu. The Wetlands is a peaceful retreat from the city and is normally quiet on weekday afternoons.

Visit Macau
Macau is a gambling mecca for the eastern hemisphere. In China, it is common for people to toast to luck rather than health, and the Macanese casino revenue numbers spotlight this infatuation. With gaming revenue roughly four times that of Las Vegas, Macau has skyrocketed beyond its desert brethren in popularity.

The boat ride from Hong Kong is a 40 mile jaunt on high speed boats and hydrofoils from the Hong Kong Macau ferry terminal in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong island. The boats are always running, so it is possible just to show up and board, though booking in advance is wise, especially on weekends and holidays. The trip takes about an hour each way.

The Macau territory is considered a special administrative district of China and was once a Portuguese colony. As a result, the culture is a very intriguing mash-up, especially when it comes to food. Macanese cuisine is a tasty and especially unique array of western and eastern influences. This is where tapas and dim sum intersect. Try a pork chop bun or a pastel de nata.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Dim Sum Dialogues: Planes, Trams, & Automatic Doors

This is a continuation of yesterday’s column on the transportation of Hong Kong.

After seeing various Youtube videos of the infamous landing at Hong Kong’s now defunct Kai Tak Airport, I’m disappointed that I never had the chance to experience a 747 roaring over a narrow Kowloon street. But the beauty and convenience of Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport make up for that disappointment, and have even earned it the first & second spots on international airport surveys for the past seven years.

For those of you that just can’t wait to throw your savings away at the Happy Valley Racecources, or blow it all in the numerous shopping malls of Hong Kong – the fastest and easiest way (but most costly – $13 USD) to get to the heart of the city is on the MTR’s Airport Express. Covering 35km in just 24 minutes, the trains depart every 12 minutes to the remote airport and convention center. If “investing” your money at the roulette tables of Macau is more to your liking, you don’t even have to officially enter the territory – a direct ferry terminal is situated before immigration in the airport for arriving passengers. The transit system was designed to be tourist-friendly, so there are plenty of accessible options.
Once you get settled inside the city, the MTR remains the most efficient way to get from end to end, or to cross under Victoria Harbor between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side. But as any well-traveled soul will tell you, the scenic route is often the best – and the Star Ferry offers some of the most enjoyable views of the city at the right price. For roughly USD 25¢, you can ride between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui – a service that has been operating since the 1870’s. The Star Ferry has become a major icon in Hong Kong, so much so that people often rent out ferries for a day to host private events, weddings, and dances on. For USD $500 to $700 for the day, it might not be the most luxurious cruise that you can take on the harbor – so I’d recommend sticking to the regular fare.

However, if the idea of hosting a party on public transport still appeals to you, look no further than HK Tramways. The Hong Kong tram system has been serving the city for over 100 years, with narrow double-decker tramcars running on overhead electric cables through the busiest areas of Hong Kong Island. When the expansion of the MTR threatened to make the tramways redundant, the public concluded to keep the service active because of it’s low fares and frequent stops on popular routes in the city. In my opinion, it is by far the most fun way to travel in Hong Kong. I guarantee that the views from the upper deck combined with the smells and sounds of the markets of Central will keep you entertained for your entire journey. If it doesn’t, I’ll personally mail you the 25¢ you spent on the journey. After you’ve sampled it (and fallen in love with it), get 25 of your HK friends to rent out a tram for USD $150 an hour and party your way through the city. Don’t get too distracted when you pass by Wan Chai though, the private trams run in a full loop that last from 2 hours to 3.5 hours.

Finally, if you refuse to take public transport, or the rain threatens to ruin that new designer item from Lane Crawford, Hong Kong taxis are remarkably cheap and easy to come by. Now I haven’t traveled anywhere in Asia, so this might just be my naivité here – but the taxis in Hong Kong have an amazing feature that I can’t believe doesn’t exist anywhere else (I’m sure it does, so readers help me out) – the back doors open automatically. The driver pulls up to your spot on the sidewalk, pulls a lever and bam – the door is open and ready for you to get in. Genius. Don’t worry about closing it on your way out either, because the driver has that covered too. On average, USD $15 will easily get you from one end of the major urban area to the other – with average city center cab rides being $5. Another reason I don’t particularly miss Los Angeles.

There you have it – the major travel methods in Hong Kong. Now that you (roughly) know how to get around, I’ll be taking you deeper into the destinations and traditions of this eclectic city. If you have specific questions about how to get around, or want to know more about the methods covered here – feel free to leave comments below.